STEM Beats - August 2011

Are Teens Uninterested in Science?

August 29, 2011

A new poll finds that almost half of US high schoolers are "definitely or probably not" interested in careers in science or health care. What's worse, the number climbs to nearly 60 percent among 13 to 15 year old students. How very odd, given that jobs in those fields are poised to multiply in the next decade.

Before we get our knickers in a twist over the findings, we should consider a few caveats about the poll.

  • The sample is quite small: only 533 students.
  • The sample doesn't necessarily represent the feelings of U.S. high school students as a whole. As the press release notes, "the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in the Harris Interactive panel," so "no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated." In other words, who knows how accurate those findings are?
  • The study's most alarming finding--that the share of uninterested students surged nine percentage points since last year--should confirm our skepticism about the findings. Huge one-year swings like that can tell us as much about the quality of the poll as about the facts it seeks to uncover.

Still, there's enough in the poll to give us pause. Even in these cloudy economic times, jobs in science and health care offer some real glimmers of hope. If our young people truly understood the opportunities in such fields, their enthusiasm would presumably cut through any statistical noise.

We have a lot more work to do to change the minds of our young people.

Hat tip: Education Week

Tags: science

Are We Teaching the Right Math?

August 26, 2011

Are our schools teaching the kind of math our students really need to know? An op ed in yesterday's New York Times raised that question, which has sown strife in math circles for years.

The op ed, by Sol Garfunkel and David Mumford offers this vision of what high school math could look like:

Imagine replacing the sequence of algebra, geometry and calculus with a sequence of finance, data and basic engineering. In the finance course, students would learn the exponential function, use formulas in spreadsheets and study the budgets of people, companies and governments. In the data course, students would gather their own data sets and learn how, in fields as diverse as sports and medicine, larger samples give better estimates of averages. In the basic engineering course, students would learn the workings of engines, sound waves, TV signals and computers.

Critics of that approach say it leaves students unprepared for the rigors of college and careers that require higher math and science. Proponents counter that the more hands-on approach to math will engage many more students while giving them the academic skills they need to choose any trajectory they want.

Expect to hear more of this debate in the coming years.

Teaching is a Wonderful Job--for Other People?

August 25, 2011

Here's an interesting puzzle. Three out of four Americans would encourage the brightest person they know to go into teaching. Two out of three say they would like their children to be public school teachers. Yet we're having trouble coaxing our best and brightest into the classroom. (Yes, Teach for America is a notable exception, but their teachers are still a drop in the public school bucket.)

You would think that such strong support for teaching as a career would raise demand for teaching jobs. Consider Finland, which draws all of its teachers from the top third of college graduates. The picture in the U.S. is very different: By one account, about 23 percent of our teachers come from the top third.

So why the strange mismatch between American sentiment and American reality? We have wonderful, dedicated teachers in our schools, but why aren't more top students beating down the doors to our classrooms? Don't pin it on teacher layoffs. They're a fairly recent phenomenon that doesn't explain the long-term trend.

Could teaching be suffering from the perception that it's a noble profession? Do people admire teachers precisely because teachers do work that they themselves don't want to do? Are parents piously telling pollsters that they would like their children to become teachers--and then quietly urging their children to get that MBA?

That's just one theory among many. Do you have any others?

What Doesn't Kill a Stereotype Can Make It Stronger

August 22, 2011

"Are women choosing romance over math and science?" The very question, which appeared atop an article in Time Magazine last week, should set your teeth on edge. The article reported on a recent study that explored the impact of romantic expectations on women's drive to pursue math or science. That study, it turns out, was fraught with peril.

The study's authors prompted men and women to think about dating and then asked them to gauge their interest in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). Men who thought about dating were no less likely to say they were interested in STEM. Among women, however, the results were different:

When the goal to be romantically desirable is activated, even by subtle situational cues, women report less interest in math and science. One reason why this might be is that pursuing intelligence goals in masculine fields, such as STEM, conflicts with pursuing romantic goals associated with traditional romantic scripts and gender norms.

Critics of the study were quick to respond. Some found that the study reinforced the very "romantic scripts and gender norms" it claimed to analyze. The title of the study's press release, "Women’s Quest for Romance Conflicts with Scientific Pursuits," does sound like something out of a former century, when women in college were urged to choose an Mrs. degree over a BS, MS or Ph.D.

One critic speculated that women in the study might be responding to "stereotype threat." That is, women who see images of romance get a strong dose of the stereotype that women put romance before smarts. When they face such stereotypes, they lose confidence--and with it the drive to pursue STEM fields.

The study's lead author objects that she was trying to make a similar point: "It's not something internal about [women] — it's the socialization practices."

Yet stereotypes are tricky things. What doesn't kill them can make them stronger. Inartfully-worded press releases about "Women's Quest for Romance" can merely feed the beast, no matter what intentions motivate them.

Tags: women & girls, math, science

The Boy Who Was “Always Terrible at Math” Grew Up to Build His Own Personal Planetarium

August 19, 2011

If you have two extra minutes, listen to Frank Kovac’s moving, personal account (recorded for StoryCorps and aired today on NPR’s Morning Edition) about how, from the first time he used a telescope as a boy, he knew he wanted to be an astrophysicist. But Frank shelved that career aspiration because he said he was “always terrible at math.” He instead grew up to work as a storeroom clerk for a local paper mill. Until the day he decided to build his own planetarium. In his own backyard.

Frank’s neighbors asked how he could possibly build a planetarium given that he had no background in engineering. His answer? “I said, 'Well, I just have an idea. In my mind I can envision this before I even [build] it.'"

How many Frank Kovacs exist in our K-12 schools today? Kids who have the desire to create something amazing, even before they fully understand the science, technology, engineering or math skills required to make it? But who may not have the confidence to pursue their dream because they think “I’m not good at math or science”.

Kudos to Frank Kovac for following his dream, and for now serving as a powerful example to countless numbers of students (in communities well beyond his local one) of the awesome power of STEM in engaging curious minds and innovative thinkers.